Edith Wharton in later years would write of Henry James as “perhaps the most intimate friend I ever had, though in many ways we were so different.” As novelists and as social animals they had, on the contrary, much in common. Wharton herself observed that James “belonged irrevocably to the old America out of which I also came, and of which—almost—it might paradoxically be said that to follow up its last traces one had to come to Europe.” Both had nostalgic memories of living abroad as children, and their feelings about the country they had both left but kept returning to, in fact or imagination, were inevitably mixed.
In fact, their return visits twice coincided, and some of the meatiest entries in the Letters: 1900–1915 of Henry James and Edith Wharton, edited by Lyall H. Powers (Scribner, 1990), were written on American soil. This correspondence, or what remains of it, is so lopsided as hardly to merit the name: as against 167 items signed by James, the volume includes just 29 signed by Wharton—of which meager hoard a mere 13 are addressed to James himself.
Twice—in November, 1909, and again six years later—a despondent James had burned quantities of his papers, among them a good many letters from the younger novelist. Among the earliest of these would have been a note offering good wishes for the opening of his play Guy Domville. Wharton's own career as a writer had then no more than been launched; his, as a consequence of that January evening, was to enter what too few of his readers thought of as its major phase. Lyall Powers dates the meeting that began their friendship to 1903. James was by then sixty-three; Edith Wharton was forty-one. She would later recall that she had already been twice in his presence years before, while she was still in her twenties, and too shy to do more than look her prettiest in the hope of attracting his attention “so that I might at last pluck up courage to blurt out my admiration for Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady.” Concerning his later work, she would express herself variously. Clearly she had her reservations. But she sent their author her books, he reciprocated with his own—and he was generous as well with literary advice. She must, he once declared, “be tethered in native pastures, even if it reduce her to a back-yard in New York.”
When James returned to America in August, 1904, for a yearlong stay, he found his protégée in residence, if not exactly tethered, at what was then still her home in the Berkshires. Among the visitors that autumn were Walter Berry, a longtime friend, and Morton Fullerton, a journalist whom she had met through James and who was about to alter her life drastically and forever. The letters James wrote her during this period are still to “Dear Mrs. Wharton,” but by the time he found himself a guest of George Vanderbilt, at Biltmore in North Carolina, their tone had grown confidingly expansive. “The mere pen,” he declared, “. . . can do but scant justice to the various elements of my situation, the recent, the constant, & the above all acutely—so acutely—actual, & that really to talk about them we must take some future N.Y. good fireside hour & then thresh them out to the last straw.” It is an instructive pleasure to note the metaphorical vigilance of that “last straw.” Whatever his material, James is not going to give himself an easy time. Virtually alone in Vanderbilt's “strange, colossal heart-breaking house, & the desolation & discomfort of the whole thing—whole scene,” we see him, after pronouncing it “indescribable,” struggling to describe it anyhow: “It’s, in effect, like a gorgeous practical joke—but at one’s own expense, after all, if one has to live in solitude in these leagues-long marble halls, & sit in alternate gothic & Palladian cathedrals, as it were—where now only the temperature stalks about—” and, writer that he is, qualifying as he goes: “In the early spring, I can conceive it as admirable. And I feel that in speaking of it as I have, I don’t do justice to the house as a phenomenon (of brute achievement).” Compunction sets in: having “been down to luncheon, & been able to see more of the house,” he confesses to feeling “a bit shabby at failing to rise to my host's conception.”
Ten letters, all neatly turned, several of them substantial, went from James to Wharton during that year of his in America. Back in England, he gave an appearance of having pulled back a little: “You cannot say that I have bombarded you with letters,” he begins. Had she perhaps bombarded him? Still ruminating, he takes up the “question of the roman de moeurs in America—its deadly difficulty”—to which he has been brought by the concluding installment of The House of Mirth. His admiration, though generous, is qualified. “I wish we could talk of it in a motor-car. I have been in motor cars again, a little, since our wonderful return from Ashfield; but with no such talk as that.”
However he might deplore every other form of bustle (for example, the elevator), James at the dawn of our hapless love affair with the internal combustion engine assigned it a rapturously prolonged erotic hyperbole. “The Vehicle of Passion,” he called it—or simply “She, the great She.”
Passion, of a less whimsical sort, had its part in the intimacy that had begun during a series of daylong expeditions into the Berkshires during the autumn of 1904, and would continue in the French, as well as the English, countryside. Only lately disinterred from the ponderous circumspections of all concerned, Edith Wharton’s love affair with Morton Fullerton can be followed here thanks only to the annotations of Professor Powers. Wharton's own memoirs are still more opaque; one could read A Backward Glance without guessing that her calamitously troublesome marriage to Teddy Wharton was even unhappy. In James's letters, on the other hand, we see his imagination repeatedly rising to the drama, and to his own role as a kind of Racinian confidant: “Live it all through, every inch of it—out if it something valuable will come—but live it ever so quietly. . . & you’ll come down & see me here & we'll talk à perte de vue, & there will be something in that for both of us.”
That was in 1908. Two years later, the roles of confidant and protagonist had undergone what amounted to a convergence. The New York Edition of James's works, on which he had concentrated large hopes and energies, had been a financial disaster; added to his own increasingly frequent bouts of illness and depression had been alarm over the decline of his older brother—and arch rival—William, who was to die at Chocorua, New Hampshire, on August 26, 1910. A series of letters to the confidante who was now “Dearest Edith” records his sitting there “stricken & in darkness” “the difference in the world & the whole aspect of life [made] by the extinction of his so cherished & dominant presence”; and how “My beloved brother’s death has cut into me, deep down, even as an absolute mutilation.” Still in New Hampshire with his brother’s family, he observes:
You may say that any stay, no matter how long, in our unspeakable country is a scant value—though, just now, in this gorgeous & so native weather with the great chamber of nature hung about as with some embossed & gilded crimsoned and purpled cuir de Cordoue. . . . However, the great matter is that if you really are to sail on the deplorable Oct. 15th we absolutely must meet before.
The proposed meeting did take place as Edith Wharton dined in New York with Henry James and, once again, Walter Berry and Morton Fullerton. Teddy Wharton, with whom she had patched things up again one more time, had just departed on a world tour. The strain upon her emotional resources is unrecorded; but it must have been great as she herself prepared to sail for Europe after that gathering in New York. Henry James had more than once, in his half-teasing admiration, called Edith Wharton “terrible”—had called her (even) “the Angel of Devastation.” In fact, the devastations of her own life during this period were such as to have undone forever a woman of less fortitude. She had learned of embezzlements and other escapades on the part of her husband, and of her lover Morton Fullerton’s equally if not more unsavory past; the love affair itself was already coming to an end, while she shifted households and twice crossed the Atlantic, in addition to the usual motorized hurtlings across the map of England and the Continent. It is no wonder that on her return to Paris she broke down completely. When her writings at the time are taken into account, her endurance up until that moment appears not so much prodigious as demonic. Besides working sporadically at The Custom of the Country, in that year she had also published a collection of ghost stories and another of poetry. By December, 1910, only weeks after her collapse, she would be at work again on a story, which grew to the length of a novella and began appearing the following summer. Its title was Ethan Frome.
In reading James’s letters it is hard not to link this famous tale to a passage dating to November, 1906:
I am wondering if you are not feeling just now perhaps a good deal, at Lenox, in the apparently delightful old 1840 way—a good snowstorm aiding. . . . But how I want to have it all—the gossip of the countryside—from you! Some of it has come to me as rather dreadful . . . —& that is what some of the lone houses in the deep valleys we motored through used to make me think of!
Wharton, in A Backward Glance, would recall that the first pages of Ethan Frome had originally been written, in French, purely as an exercise, some years before. The motor-car had made the project possible:
In those epic days roads and motors were an equally unknown quantity, and one set out on a ten-mile run with more apprehension than would now attend a journey across Africa. But the range of country-lovers like myself had hitherto been so limited, and our imagination so tantalized by the mystery beyond the next blue hills, that there was inexhaustible delight in penetrating to the remoter parts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, discovering derelict villages with Georgian churches and balustraded traded house-fronts, exploring slumbrous mountain valleys, and coming back weary but laden with a new harvest of beauty, after sticking fast in ruts, having to push the car up hill, to rout out the village blacksmith for repairs, and suffer the jeers of horse-drawn travellers trotting gaily past us.
The pleasures of the house at Lenox were such that had it not been for her husband’s inability to settle anywhere, Edith Wharton might very well have established herself there. It was otherwise for Henry James. He could write eloquently of the New England countryside; but he referred to “repatriation” as “a mere lurid dream,” and it is the testimony of Wharton in A Backward Glance that “he was never really happy or at home” in America.
Given the virtual absence of her letters from Professor Powers’s collection, the inclusion of A Backward Glance in the latest volume of the Library of America amounts to a happy accident. To a total of eight novellas the editor, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, has appended a hitherto unpublished, and rather more forthcoming, autobiographical fragment, entitled Life and I. It unfortunately breaks off early. Though in A Backward Glance Wharton writes at entertaining length of her friendship with James, one could wish for a bit more of the candor with which she recorded, in that late fragment, her dislike of the company of other little girls, as well as her early propensities as a storyteller:
Never shall I forget the long-drawn weariness of the hours passed with “nice” little girls . . . when the “pull” became too strong, I would politely ask my unsuspecting companions to excuse me while I “went to speak to mamma,” & dashing into the drawing-room I would pant out, “Mamma, please go & amuse those children. I must make up.” . . . Oh, the exquisite relief of those moments of escape from the effort of trying to “be like other children”!
More poignant still is the recollection of how “a penetrating sense of ‘not-niceness’ ” kept her from pursuing any inquiry about where babies came from until the very eve of her own marriage, when “I was seized with such a dread of the whole dark mystery, that I summoned up courage to appeal to my mother, & begged her . . . . to tell me ‘what being married was like.’ ” This time, disapproval could not stifle the fearful need to know what was about to happen to herself:
The coldness of her expression deepened to disgust. She was silent for a dreadful moment; then she said with an effort: “You’ve seen enough pictures & statues in your life. Haven’t you noticed that men are—made differently from women?”
Edith Wharton was by then twenty-three. She had resolved, many years later, to set down this harrowing conversation “because the training of which it was the dreadful and logical conclusion did more than anything else to falsify and misdirect my whole life.” Bravely though she goes on to insist that “in the end” her life was neither falsified nor misdirected, the cost is unmistakable. That cost, it may be added, also gives strength to her most memorable work. Those of her female characters whom experience does not finally destroy, as it destroys Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, emerge maimed and wary, if not literally paralyzed or otherwise locked into the stasis of futility. Such is the fate of Mattie Silver in Ethan Frome, of Charity Royall in Summer, of Sophy Viner in The Reef, of Kate Clephane in The Mother’s Recompense—all victims to some degree of their own generous impulses. A different kind of character, who seems especially, and touchingly, close to Wharton’s own experience, is that of Anna, in The Reef. She learns how her lover entered into a casual affair while he was waiting for her answer to his proposal of marriage and, out of the virginal bewilderment of generations of women who have married and borne children without any recompense of physical enjoyment, pleads to be told, “Do such things happen to men often?”
Henry James in a letter dated December, 1912, declared The Reef “quite the finest thing you have done; both more done than even the best of your other doing, and more worth it through intrinsic value, interest and beauty.” He read it, he said, “as a Drama, and almost, as it seems to me, one of psychologic Racinian unity, intensity and gracility.” Even here, the praise is qualified: “I’m not sure [Anna’s] oscillations are not beyond our notation” is a politer way of registering what a reader cannot but feel, that Anna’s decisions and revisions, moment by moment and reversal by reversal, go on more than a few pages too long—as one does not feel in the process by which a Jamesian consciousness unfolds.
Still later, at any rate, James would bestow an equal praise on the very different, and in its way more accomplished Custom of the Country: “I hang on the sequences,” he wrote, “with a beating heart & such a sense of your craft, your cunning, your devilish resources in the perpetration of them.” By now his protégée has indeed become his “Dear and admirable Confrère.”
He had likewise admired Ethan Frome, for its “art & tone & truth—a beautiful artful kept-downness, & yet effective cumulation.” I find myself regretting that he did not live to respond to the companion and counterpart of that bleak winter’s tale, the less often reprinted Summer. Like Ethan Frome, it was written in France. By then Europe was at war, and Edith Wharton’s demonic energies had been channeled into a tornado of volunteer work for the Red Cross—first in setting up a workroom for women whose livelihood had been cut off by the fighting, then in fund-raising for Belgian refugees, then in seeing to the needs of military hospitals, among still other projects. “After two years,” she wrote, “we all became strangely inured to a state which at first made intellectual detachment impossible. . . . All the pessimism and lamentation,” she added, “came from the idlers, while those who were laboring to the limits possessed their souls.”
It was in this mental state that she began to write, “at a high pitch of creative joy, but amid a thousand interruptions, and while the rest of my being was steeped in the tragic realities of the war; yet I do not remember ever visualizing with more intensity the inner scene, or the creatures peopling it.”
This estimate seems borne out by the story itself. At once idyllic and shocking, Summer as a whole is as though drenched in radiance, the poetry of what cannot last. Through the kind of imaginative projection that permitted George Eliot to endow, improbably, a Hetty Sorel or a Gwendolen Harleth with so much of herself, in Summer Edith Wharton seems to have given to the figure of Charity Royall, the backwoods foundling whose dream of rising in the world is over when the season ends, the unstinted richness of her own emotional awakening. It had been the desire of each—as Wharton confessed of herself—“to love and to look pretty.” Rare is the woman who can free herself of that desire, and this Edith Wharton was clearheaded enough to acknowledge. The story of Charity Royall’s own awakening and abandonment seems almost to tell itself, without any of those stretches of insipid dialogue that weaken the fabric of so many Wharton narratives, and with such vividness that we become increasingly agitated participants in the process. What makes Summer more than a painful exposé, finally, of what men do to women is the unfolding character of the crude but not simple guardian with whom Charity’s fate is entangled. “Lawyer Royall” is indeed the most complex and disturbing of several elderly male characters who add ballast to her later fiction. What would Henry James have made of him? But by the end of February, 1916, he was dead.
His letters to Edith Wharton continued through September, 1915. A number of them were typed from his dictation. His concern was now mainly, sometimes feverishly, with the progress of the war. Her letters to him were now zealously preserved, and handed about. Such first-hand reporting as this, from a letter dated Verdun, February 28, 1915, was bound to have been circulated:
We went on to Verdun after lunch, stopping at Blercourt to see a touching little ambulance where the sick and nervously shattered are sent till they can be moved. Most of them are in the village church, four rows of beds down the nave, & when we went in the curé was just ringing the bell for vespers. Then he went & put on his vestments, & reappeared at the lighted altar with his acolyte, & incense began to float over the pale heads on the pillows, & the villagers came into the church, &, standing between the beds, sang a strange walling thing that repeats at the end of every verse:
“Sauvez, sauvez la France,
Ne l’abandonnez pas”—It was poignant.
To this, in a hand-written letter, James responded:
. . . your impression is rendered in a degree so vivid & touching that it all (especially those vespers in the church with the tragic beds in the aisles) wrings tears from my aged eyes. What a hungry luxury to be able to come back with things & give them then & there straight into the aching voids: do it, do it, my blest Edith, for all you’re worth: rather, rather—“sauvez, sauvez la France!” Ah, je la sauverais bien, moi, if I hadn’t been ruined myself too soon!
That was in March. In October Wharton crossed the Channel and saw him for the last time. It had seemed, she would write many years afterward, “as though a man of his powerful frame and unimpaired intellectual vitality ought to have lived longer.” But he had—as she observed—been shaken by the death of his brother, as well as weakened by the disappointment of his long-held hope of becoming a successful dramatist. In the end, though, as she wrote in A Backward Glance, “what really gave him his death-blow was the war. He struggled through two years of it, then veiled his eyes from the endless perspective of destruction. It was the gesture of Agamemnon, covering his face with his cloak before the unbearable.”
In December, 1915, when word came that Henry James was unmistakably dying, Edith Wharton wrote, “His friendship was the pride and honour of my life.” There is in this more than the hyperbole of grief. Their friendship had been as full of nuance and complexity as it was in the end deeply rooted. All of Henry James’s own ambivalences toward women, especially women of force and determination, were set quivering by the “Dearest Edith” of whom he could write that she “rode the whirlwind, she played with the storm, she laid waste whatever of the land the other raging elements had spared”—and to whom he would comically admit “the desire, the frantic impulse of scared childhood, to plunge my head under the bed-clothes & burrow there, not to let it (i.e. Her!) get me!”
By “Her” he only partly meant “Dearest Edith’s” omnipresently seductive motor-car. This kind of badinage runs at one level all through their correspondence. “The real marriage of two minds,” she observed, “is for any two people to possess a sense of humour or irony pitched in exactly the same key.” But what gives life, now, to the surviving correspondence between Edith Wharton and Henry James, thanks to the available supplements and annotations that enable one to enter into the sympathies of both participants, is the largeness of James's own thwarted but still powerful dramatic sense. His long letter of praise for The Reef, written in December, 1912, rose finally into a passage Edith Wharton must have treasured for the rest of her life:
There used to be little notes in you that were like fine benevolent finger-marks, of the good George Eliot—the echo of much reading of that excellent woman here and there, that is, sounding through. But now you are like a lost and recovered “ancient” whom she might have got a reading of (especially were he a Greek) and of whom in her texture some weaker reflection were to show. For, dearest Edith, you are stronger and firmer and finer than all of them put together. . . . Clearly you have only to pull, and everything will come.
It may be said that nothing in Edith Wharton's large fictional output after her “cher Maître” was gone quite measured up to this noble (though even here, inevitably qualified) hyperbole. She kept at it, writing book after book on lives briefly raised out of, and then reclaimed by, the stasis of convention, in New York or on the French Riviera, or both. It is regrettable, if not really surprising, that The Mother's Recompense, the last of the novellas in the Library of America selection, though expertly framed in the stasis she knew all too well, reads like a soap opera. Henry James himself was not always at his best. Edith Wharton is most intensely so in exploring the specific quality of the pain that comes of being a woman. In this she is unsurpassed except by George Eliot at her most intense. The intuitive genius of Henry James approached that pain in a manner uniquely his own, and in so doing raised it to a higher level of dramatic art. But of the depth of that intuition there can be no doubt, and it was at such depths, finally, that his friendship with Edith Wharton most freely moved. This is evident from a letter addressed to his “dear and admirable Confrère,” a few weeks after the one just quoted: “I can't possibly not want to thank you on the spot for your so deeply interesting and moving letter, this morning received,” it begins, and later declares that “you will see and feel what I mean—being about the only person who ever does, in general.”
The occasion, we learn from the notes, is that Teddy Wharton's behavior having become egregious, she was finally about to sue for divorce. In concluding, “Je vous embrasse & am all devotedly yr. H J.,” the signer had (as so often in his fiction) filled an empty form and left it brimming with his own reality. All her life, she had preferred the company of men. Unlike most of those she had known, he was there when she needed him.